Hunt had long been intrigued by the thought of applying hip-hop sampling techniques to country tracks, but had never found the right vehicle. That all changed when songwriter Luke Laird (“Beat This Summer,” “T-Shirt”) introduced his “There Stands the Glass” sample in the middle of writing a different song, “One Whiskey Away,” that wasn’t working.
Laird had been creating samples for years out of classic country songs such as Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” and John Anderson’s “Swingin’,” though none had found their way into the public sphere. The Pierce sample was fortuitous: While Laird was eating breakfast at First Watch in Nashville’s Green Hills neighborhood and listening to Apple Music’s Honky Tonk Essentials playlist, “There Stands the Glass” popped up, and he was inspired to create a sample out of it.
Laird wasn’t expecting the piece to become part of a song. He only played it for Hunt because their writing appointment with Ashley Gorley (“Catch,” “Ridin’ Roads”) had hit a dead end. Hunt asked Laird if he had any other beats that might fit “One Whiskey Away,” and since “There Stands the Glass” had the same drinking theme, it was worth a shot. Hunt asked if he could live with it for a while, and with Laird’s consent, he played with it periodically for what may have been several months.
“He for sure knows when it’s something that’s right for him,” says Laird. “He’s got a stamina to work on a song that’s like no one I’ve ever seen.”
As Hunt toyed with the sample, he thought of matching it with “Hard to Forget,” a title he already had worked on with Shane McAnally (“Nobody but You,” “One Man Band”) and Josh Osborne (“Kinfolks,” “Hotel Key”). McAnally had brought that title in, twisting the phrase “Playing hard to get” into “Playing hard to forget.”
Hunt worked with McAnally and Osborne to retrofit the title to the new sample. They sketched out the chorus melody and a few lyrics, then Hunt brought all four cowriters together for one concentrated day of work. The chorus became a lyrical puzzle, with “There Stands the Glass” inspiring references to other traditional country songs — “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Cold Hard Truth” — and plenty of additional wordplay: “I got a bottle of whiskey, but I got no proof” and “out of sight, out of mind” leading to “it’s driving me out of mine.”
“We definitely did ‘cold heart’ because of Hank Williams,” says McAnally. "'Cold hard truth' was a phonetics play because it sounds just like ‘cold heart.’ I can’t say for sure if [anyone was] thinking of the George Jones song. Some of those little happy accidents along the way were just little blessings.”
They also threw in a passing chord under the “got no proof” phrase that creates momentary tension and quick resolution.
“I love going to that little thing,” says Gorley. “I don’t even know if I’m the one that did it, but I’m always a fan of that old-school thing to walk up to that chord.”
The opening verse explored the ways in which the singer’s ex was haunting him when he went out into the world. Nearly every line begins with a similar phrase — “I saw …,” “I see …,” “I smell …” or “I swear …” — to give the story some structure.
“It is so intentional,” says McAnally of the approach, “and that verse was such a b---h.”
Hunt mulled over a second verse after that day’s work, and eventually reconvened with McAnally to hash out the specifics. For that stanza, Hunt envisioned the guy being haunted by his ex at home. He leaves her clothes on the front step for her to pick up, but she fails to stop by, creating a nagging reminder of her absence.
“It’s hard to say if she’s actually up to something or it’s all in his head,” notes Hunt.
After Laird produced the demo, Hunt brought it to producer Zach Crowell (Dustin Lynch, Chris Janson), who sped the song up 10-15 beats per minute. He developed his own version of a basic track for a handful of musicians to work with in a core session at the Sound Stage studios on Music Row. Then he brought a string of players — including Laird and fellow guitarists Sol Philcox-Littlefield and Chris LaCorte, fiddler Jenee Fleenor, banjoist Ilya Toshinsky and steel guitarist Russ Pahl — to his home for overdub sessions.
“It’s probably the most complicated puzzle I’ve ever been a part of,” observes Crowell. “It’s definitely the most progressive thing I feel I’ve been a part of, but it’s also extremely traditional in the base of the song … and some of the parts in it.”
In his final run-through on the vocal, Hunt tagged it with one new line. Every previous chorus had the singer lamenting, “You’re breaking my heart.” On the last pass, he took the closing chorus one more step, admitting, “I’m falling apart.”
“It seemed to want one last thing to resolve just a little more,” he says.
Hunt’s band did some group vocal parts, and the loose atmosphere led to a ton of off-the-cuff ad libs; one, near the three-minute mark, was Hunt’s guitar player, Josh Burkett, notes Crowell. “Earlier that day, he had got a new apartment, and he’s yelling, ‘Closing on that condo.’ He cracked us up.”
Gorley subsequently brought his teenage daughter and a few of her friends to Crowell’s studio. They added more vocals — and got a FaceTime thank-you from Hunt for their efforts.
MCA released “Hard to Forget” to country radio via PlayMPE on March 2, and it’s already at No. 18 on Country Airplay and No. 17 on Hot Country Songs.
“I haven’t been this excited about a song coming out in a while — getting to use a sample and make a song like this and know that it actually is going to get heard because of the Sam Hunt vessel,” says Laird. “Some people are probably going to hate it, but I know a lot of people love it just from texts I’ve got.”
In practice, “Hard to Forget” introduces contemporary country fans to Pierce, one of the genre’s most flamboyant characters. The 2001 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee drove a car with silver dollars embedded in the dashboard, had a guitar-shaped swimming pool built and encouraged tourist buses to visit his home. If any voice from the past was to journey with Hunt into country’s future, Pierce might well be the most apt.
“There are going to be people who are bothered by the combination of the new and the old,” allows Hunt. “But when you look into Webb Pierce’s character, you get the feeling that he wouldn’t have minded too much if we sampled his song in this way.”
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.